Kicking off just in time for Xmas, box set releases by the 60's gods Beatles Dylan, Stones
Part 1 of 3 "Springtime in New York - The Bootleg Series Vol 16 1980-85" - Robert Zimmerman
I sometimes wonder if Bob Dylan is real . A kid from Duluth , Minnesota obsessed with Little Richard and Greek Classical studies becomes possibly the greatest exponent of the English language since Shakespeare and combined with a melodic and deep musical knowledge , the greatest songwriter of all time. By himself, no collaboration, not in a band (ok the Wilbury's , the association with the Band and the occasional co-write don't count), solo. All the pressure on his shoulders since age 22 to live up to ...himself . To quote the Beatles "Boy you're gonna carry that weight a long time."
Sure there were twists and turns along the way - a motorcycle accident, a recluse, a family man (4 x kids mid-late 60's) , an actor , a vaudeville showman (Rolling Thunder, Renaldo & Clara) , a friend to an honest President of the US (Jimmy Carter) , a divorce, a born again Christian ..that probably takes us up to age 40 when the time period of the latest of his Archive series begins.
Springtime in New York coincides with when my Dylan journey started , I had a taped copy of the Live at Budokan album (forgot to mention the Vegas Showman!) from the late 70's where many songs were re-arranged in a big band setting. Around this time Bob saw the light or some vision in what became known as the Christian trilogy, each marked by more fire & brimstone via Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love .Such were the diminishing returns of each successive release by the time Infidels came along in 1983 Bob was becoming more of a curiosity .
However Infidels marked a new beginning to which many of the achievements of his subsequent years can be attributed to. And the Springtime collection centers around this release more than the previous secular based records and the post Infidels Empire Burlesque.
Disc 1 & 2 are derived from tour rehearsal jams in the early 80's with covers and rarities all with expert grooves underpinned by none other than LA's finest Jim Keltner and Tim Drummond with guitar lines supplied by Danny Kortchmar and Fred Tackett . These 4 players were all over anything of quality from the mid 70's on and as such you aren't going to get a dud track. Not even with a cover of "Sweet Caroline" , much derided in the critical writeups since Springtime's release. I always thought Dylan had a disliking of Neil Diamond . Who can forget when challenged by Neil Diamond to "beat his performance" on stage at the Bands The Last Waltz concert. Bob's legendary response was "What do I have to do, go out there and go to sleep?"
"It all sounds the same" is the comment from my wife as the car stereo blasts Disc 2 ("Fur Slippers" , a great bluesy stomp )as we travel down the South Island . Though I disagree (of course!) I get where the sentiment is coming from. It's in the vocal delivery, Bob is prone to the fire and bombast which had been his MO largely since Rolling Thunder. However in sync with the quality of the band he has the incredible Clydie King on backing vocals who provides the required light and shade to Bob's voice. It is amazing to hear how intertwined with Bob's phrasing she was , this after all is Bob Dylan on vocals. Its possibly one of the hardest jobs in show business.
Discs 3 & 4 are where the real pay dirt is with the Infidels expanded tracks, alternate takes & mixes. Dylan recruited arguably his finest session musicians to date , the reggae rhythm section Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, Mark Knopfler and Alan Clark from the rapidly stratospheric Dire Straits and none other than ex Rolling Stone Mick Taylor. It's a tight band, the guitar styles of Knopfler's JJ Cale /Richard Thompson vs Taylor's bespoke blues & slide meshes perfectly. According to the chronology of the extensive notes in the box set , it was one of the longest stints Bob spent in the studio at one time roughly 6 x weeks during March - May 1983. For those familiar with the released version of Infidels there are many (no pun intended ) revelations inside.
Repeating the 1983 sequence and out comes "Jokerman" , I was floored then and it still has me shaking my head all these years later. It's the imagery that comes out on every line, your mind is desperately trying to keep up with where Bob is going all the while wrapped up in a beat and arrangement you can only describe as mystical. And the voice now equal parts nuanced and thoughtful rather than bellowing:
Standing on the water casting your bread
While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing
Then later on , classic songwriting alliteration from the master:
So swiftly the sun sets in the sky, you rise up and say goodbye to no one
Listening 38 years later and I realize "Jokerman" may be about Bob himself
Look at these lines that didn't make the final cut :
Scratching the world with a fine tooth comb,
you are a king of nations but a stranger back home
This could be Bob himself, at once of the most recognizable faces on Planet Earth yet struggling with a domesticity, 4 x kids now entering teenage years and an aftermath of a messy divorce .
At the time I was swayed by the video imagery superbly interweaved and no doubt as an offset to the sullen Dylan during the video shoot. Speaking of which there was a rare interview with Rolling Stone magazine's Kurt Loder at a New York diner during the video shoot . A waitress upon taking his order exclaimed "You're Bob Dylan!" , to which Bob replied " and you're Barbra Streisand right?" Classic Bob humour , a quality underappreciated.
I could spend an entire post talking about the next track on Disc 3 "Blind Willie McTell". First officially released in an acoustic version in the very first Bootleg series, I had heard a full band bootleg in the late 80's given to me by a local Dylan nut. I couldn't believe what I was hearing ....,
Seen the arrow on the doorpost
Saying, “This land is condemned
All the way from New Orleans
To new Jerusalem”
I traveled through East Texas
Where many martyrs fell
And I can tell you one thing
Nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell
A tale about a bluesman ,with a lyric encompassing oppression, racism, slavery, it predates many of the highlights of Dylan's catalogue in later years where he often took on traditional song forms and weaved in his own unique tales . With this band version Mick Taylor plays superb slide while Dylan drives proceedings from the piano and the tempo lurches in and out haphazardly while the band are becoming familiar with the track. I've always rated this in his top 10 songs ever and the fact he left this off Infidels shows you how Bob's quality control filter could be off during the rest of the 80's and /or someone from the record company simply didn't get it. Time Out of Mind indeed.
The highlights keep coming over Disc 3 - "Sweetheart like You":
They say that patriotism is the last refuge, to which a scoundrel clings,
Steal a little and they throw you in jail,
Steal a lot and they make you king.
This is a year before Reagan was elected to his second term (remember Oliver North , the Iran Contras deal and various goings on in Central America?) , and 30 years plus before the era of Donald Trump (too many lowlights to mention) . To say Dylan is prescient with some of these lyrics and sentiment is an understatement .
We hear superior versions of "Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight" , "Union Sundown" , "I & I ( a version where Mark Knopfler goes full Dire Straits on guitar and Dylan sounds like Dylan impersonating Knopfler impersonating Dylan on vocals) and an alternate version of "Licence to Kill", reshaped as a tender "Lord Protect My Child" . The evolution of Bob's last radio hit "Tight Connection to My Heart" has the superior "Someone Gotta Hold of My Heart" teased out over a couple of versions. The sessions also yielded "Clean Cut Kid", a scathing take on growing up in Vietnam era USA and once again with superior versions than what ended up on Empire Burlesque:
They said, "Listen boy, you're just a pup"
They sent him to a napalm health-spa to shape up
They gave him dope to smoke, drinks and pills
A jeep to drive, blood to spill
They said "Congratulations, you got what it takes"
They sent him back into the rat race without any brakes
They took a clean cut kid (ooh)
And they made a killer out of him
That's what they did.
It's all equal parts revealing and frustrating and, as mentioned by Rolling Stone magazine recently , Bob Dylan's' issue around this time doesn't seem to be the quality of the content but the curation decisions surrounding it. This continues for the remainder of the Springtime collection kicking off on Disc 5 with a scorching live "Enough is Enough" from his 1984 European Tour . Featuring half of former members of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers (Mick Taylor and Colin Allen) as well as the great Ian McLagan from the Faces, this track, seldom played on the tour, would have been the standout from the Real Live concert document if only someone with ears was listening . Through the inferior (compared with Infidels at least ) Empire Burlesque material the box set concludes with the astounding 11 min "New Danville Girl" which would miss Burlesque , be renamed "Brownsville Girl" and be the highlight track of the patchy Knocked Out Loaded and finally "Dark Eyes" , supposedly a "folkie" track demanded by mega producer Arthur Baker . This ended up as the last track on Empire Burlesque and at the time was a welcome release from the 80's bloated production that plagued the whole album.
This Bootleg series collection is a must for anyone who has ever owned anything of Dylan"s work throughout his career and resets any misconception that the 80's up to this point were a write off. True, there were a couple of forgettable releases later until Daniel Lanois took the reins for the sublime Oh Mercy in 1989 then later in the 90's with Time Out of Mind .Possibly too heavy a set for non Dylanists the quality of the lyrics ,the players and the songs contained within Springtime in New York serves as a reminder that class is permanent .
As for whether Bob Dylan is real, perhaps it is just that he has seen to have lived nine lives and is still here......
"Springtime in New York - The Bootleg Series Vol 16 1980-85" rating:
Song selection 8.5/10
Liner Notes 7.5/10
Overall box set 8/10
Overall comment - The Dylan Bootleg series continues to set the standard of how to reset and reframe an artists career choices.